Failed box out costs Thunder Game 6

OKC led 94-93 in the closing moments of Game 6 when Kobe Bryant dribbled up the right side of the floor preparing to attempt a game-winning shot…

Watch the video again. This time, notice how Nick Collison (charged with covering Pau Gasol) starts to cheat over on Kobe to help on a potential drive to the hoop. This is by design. What’s not by design is how neither Serge Ibaka (#9) nor Jeff Green (#22) rotates down and puts a body on Gasol. The players that they were covering — Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher — were ponderously standing out behind the three-point line, so they weren’t threats on the offensive glass.

Instead, Ibaka and Green turn and watch Kobe’s shot. After the put-back, Jeff Van Gundy blamed Collison for not rotating back to Gasol, but physically-speaking, it’s tough to ask a guy to help on a Kobe drive and box out Gasol. That duty needs to fall to Ibaka or Green (probably Ibaka).

Here’s a case where the Thunder’s inexperience really cost them. But it’s not like failed box outs haven’t lost games before. In the 1983 NCAA title game, Hakeem Olajuwon stood and watched the shot go up, allowing NC State’s Lorenzo Charles to sneak in behind him, catch the airball, and dunk it for the win. Here’s another look:

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Lakers: “Not so fast.”

Much was made, and justifiably so, of the Thunder’s blowout of the Lakers in Game 4. This is a young, talented team that has a chance to become a Western Conference power for years to come. But the Lakers clearly took the loss to heart and turned around and blew out the Thunder, 111-87, in Game 5.

Did Kobe go for 35-40 points? Nope. He posted 13-3-7 on nine shot attempts, but more importantly, he checked Russell Westbrook for much of the game. Westbrook’s quickness gave Derek Fisher fits in the first four games of the series, so the defensive change makes a lot of sense.

Pau Gasol (25-11-5) and Andrew Bynum (21-11) dominated down low, combining to hit 18-of-26 shots (69%) from the field. Even Ron Artest had a nice offensive game with 14 points and five dimes.

The Lakers lead 3-2 and head back to OKC for Game 6 on Friday. Is this series over? Not even close. The Lakers have not played well on the road in this series and if the Thunder can defend their home court yet again, they’ll have a puncher’s chance to win Game 7. It’s going to take a monumental effort to beat the Lakers in L.A. in that scenario, or the Lakers will have to lay an egg. Either way, it would be interesting to see the young Thunder play in their first Game 7.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Is Kobe on the decline?

In a piece entitled “The slow death of a competitor,” HoopsHype’s Roland Lazenby discusses how much mileage Kobe Bryant has on his body.

In his 14th season, Bryant heads into Tuesday night’s pivotal first round Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder having played better than 44,400 minutes of regular season and playoff basketball.

If somehow the Lakers manage to survive and and advance, Bryant could wind up with better than 45,000 minutes on the odometer after this season.

Jordan, long considered the standard because he drove the Bulls to a championship as a 35-year-old NBA guard, played a total of 48,485 minutes over his 15-year career, the final 5,000 of which were frustration filled.

I don’t think there’s much of a question that Kobe is at the tail end of his prime. Perhaps he’s even started the slow, inevitable decline that most superstars experience as they get into their 30s. Since he’s playing a few more minutes, his stats haven’t dropped much since last season, though his PER (21.95) is at an eight-year low.

He shot just 30% in three April regular season games, and is shooting 38.4% against the Thunder. Maybe his finger is bothering him, or maybe it’s the defense of Thabo Sefolosha (and Kevin Durant), or all of the above. Game 2 Kobe dropped 39 points and got to the line 15 times. After the Lakers lost Game 3, Game 4 Kobe deferred for much of the game, taking only 10 shots and scoring just 12 points as the Lakers tried to exploit their size advantage.

But this is nothing new. Kobe has pouted his way through playoff games in the past. (Anyone remember that Suns series a few years back?) The problem with the Lakers is not Kobe Bryant. The biggest thing standing in the way of a second-straight title is this team’s lack of hunger. Led by Kobe’s insatiable appetite, last year’s Lakers would not be denied. But now that they have their rings, getting motivated is not as easy, especially when there are a dozen or so teams with comparable talent and better chemistry waiting in the wings.

Ron Artest is a disaster offensively, Andrew Bynum is coming off an injury, and Derek Fisher is showing his age. Lamar Odom is averaging a career low in playoff points, rebounds and FG%, and at times looks like he’s ready to start his summer with Khloe Kardashian.

In short, these are not the same Lakers we saw last year. The good news — for Laker fans, anyway — is that there is time to straighten this out. The sky is not falling. Game 5 at Staples is a good opportunity to start. If they can get their swagger back and win the series, another Finals appearance is well within reach. The West is talented, but Utah is thin on the front line, Dallas is on the verge of collapse, San Antonio is aging and the Suns are…well, they’re the Suns.

Then again, if OKC is able to win Tuesday night and go on to win the series, we could see a veritable sea change in L.A. Artest, Bynum, Fisher and even Phil Jackson could be headed for new zip codes this summer.

And to think, this is just the first round.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Has Kevin Durant figured out Ron Artest?

Through the first eleven quarters of this Lakers/Thunder series, Ron Artest held Kevin Durant to 23-of-67 shooting (34%). Over the past five quarters — the 4th quarter of Game 3 and all of Game 4 — Durant has shot 10-of-19 (53%) from the field.

But it wasn’t Durant that was the difference in OKC’s 110-89 blowout win over the Lakers in Game 4. There were four other Thunder players in double digits: Russell Westbrook (18), Jeff Green (15), James Harden (15) and Eric Maynor (13). Harden has played especially well in Game 3 and Game 4, scoring 33 points in the two games after going 0-for-5 for nary a point in Game 1 and Game 2.

But can this young team take this fine play on the road and steal a game in L.A.? Only six teams in the league had more road wins than the Thunder, so the answer is yes they can. The real question is whether or not they will.

As for Artest, while he played pretty good defense for the first 11 quarters, he has been an absolute disaster on the other end of the court. He is averaging 7-3-2 and is shooting 30% from the field and just 13% from long range. This wouldn’t be so bad if he were taking just a few shots per game, but he has averaged 10 attempts from the field and almost six threes per game in the series. Even with a decent season percentage (35%), he has no business taking that many threes when he’s in this kind of a rut.

Most pundits thought that OKC wasn’t ready to push the Lakers to six or seven games, but since that question has already been answered, now it’s time to find out if they’re ready to pull the upset. They are younger, faster and more athletic than the Lakers, but L.A. has the experience. Which will win out?

Game 5 in L.A. is on Tuesday.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Russell Westbrook posterizes Lamar Odom [video]

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